Losing control of media

NBC News says they will not make the videos from the Virginia mass murderer fully public and this morning on Today, Matt Lauer promised that they would not constantly loop them on the air. NBC News President Steve Capus just said on the air that “it’s so twisted” and “there’s no way to watch it without being extremely disturbed.” There’s a debate going on in blogs about whether the tapes should be released online. Dave Winer and Doc Searls say that the video should be released: “It’s 2007,” says Dave, “and it’s a decentralized world. We should all get a chance to see what’s on those videos.” But Micah Sifry says the father in him doesn’t want his kids discovering this on the internet.

As a father, I understand Micah’s wish. But that horse is out of that barn. This is related to yesterday’s discussion about news coming from witnesses, live, to the internet without the opportunity to filter it.

The essential infrastructure of news and media has changed forever: There is no control point anymore. When anyone and everyone — witnesses, criminals, victims, commenters, officials, and journalists — can publish and broadcast as events happen, there is no longer any guarantee that news and society itself can be filtered, packaged, edited, sanitized, polished, secured.

Like it or not, that’s the way it is. But before we start wringing our hands over the unique, one-in-a-billion exception to all rules — the mass murderer with a camera — let’s make sure we remember that this openness is a great and good change. It enables us all have a voice and to hear new voices.

And let’s not presume that we all need NBC or anyone to protect us from life as it is. But we do need to make sure to educate our children to be media-wise in a new media world. They will need to judge who the bad people are in life just as they will online. They need to understand that media is no longer a pasteurized and packaged version of life but life itself, witih all its benefits and dangers.

And though I don’t want to watch the murderer’s videos myself, I do think there may be a benefit to these tapes being out there: The guy was clearly insane and dangerous and what’s most shocking about this story is that people around him knew it and tried to both get him help and stop him from doing something dangerous and yet our laws even prevented his parents from being notified because of overzealous laws governing privacy. Perhaps this will motivate us to change those laws and our attitude about insanity and its dangers. That may be an advantage of the public life.

This is not an easy transition. It challenges so many assumptions we have about a controlled media. Some of us celebrate the loss of control but others fear that loss.

  • Jim Harris

    I agree with your wish — This kid clearly was crackers, and someone, roommate, classmate, Nikki Giovanni, needed the power to say “Enough!” and make it stick. The danger is in Americans’ tendency these days to veer too far the other way.
    Lauer, however, is full of shit — NBC has pimped these images and these clips all morning in that deeply reverent but nonetheless gleeful tone: “More in the next hour!” “More tonight with Brian!” “More tonight on Dateline!” “We’ve got the story! Watch us!” And that’s where I differ with your take on “this openness.” NBC is as happy as a cat in a roomful of canaries that it has THE story, and is celebrating its celebrity shamelessly and in the process making Cho the celebrity. This poor bastard is the last person I want to replace Sanjaya at the water cooler — or in another suffering child’s head.

  • I’m sorry, but the answer cannot be “anything goes” because “all bets are off.”

    Responsible people have to act responsibly, period. The discussion has to be whether airing even portions of the raw video on network television is right or wrong. Only children argue that they should be allowed to do something because Billy can.

    It used to be that news organizations risked doing irresponsible things for competitive reasons against only other news organizations — ABC has the tape so CBS might as well run with it. Bad enough. Now the argument is extended to the point that if it is on YouTube, it is fair game.

    So why are news organizations not showing enemy videos of US forces being blown up, plentiful on the Internet, while simultaneously complaining that they can’t take pictures of body bags of our returning dead?

    It is a false argument that TV cannot be selective. They edit for content every day. And the Internet is filtered. I can avoid anything I want to avoid. But unless I am quick on the remote-draw or TiVo everything, TV immerses me in what they want me to experience.

    Let’s keep this debate to the merits. NBC got a scoop and, rushed into a decision, did not think this through. I believe it will reflect poorly on them. They could have shown the video without audio, running partial phrases on screen and in voice over. Newspapers will be doing reporting this without any multimedia at all, and I’m sure they will all do a great job.

    Almost comically, the venomous rant is allowed to flow freely except for some really, really bad stuff NBC could not bring itself to inflict on its viewer — cuss words were bleeped and Seung-Cho’s mouth blurred (the better to protect lip readers, I guess) when he utters them.

    Honestly, is this not a world gone mad?

    I have no doubt that NBC could have taken advantage of this material without doing exactly what this dangerous criminal asked them to by sending them his press packet.

    But video is hot. Isn’t that really what this is all about?

  • http://www.ianbetteridge.co.uk/technovia/?p=1052

    “It’s not enough to say that the vast majority of people who view them will simply view them for what they are: pathetic and delusional. A tiny proportion of those who view them will regard them as the testimony of a martyr, just as Cho Seung-Hui regarded the messages and pictures left by the Columbine killers as inspirational. “

  • Harry

    “The essential infrastructure of news and media has changed forever: There is no control point anymore.”

    Wrong, Jeff. There was a control point—-NBC News. Their decision is why a sickfuck like Cho now has the “glory” he was denied in life, and why some other deranged people like him are now thinking, “Gee, I could be like him!” (And before dismissing that, remember that Cho, in his own words, was clearly inspired by the Columbine killers). NBC’s decision greatly increases the chance of eventual copycat murders.

    Cho was crazy, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew that sending that package to NBC News would make him famous, let him hurt the victims’ families from beyond the grave, and give him a worldwide platform for his rantings. And NBC News was stupid—-or venal—-enough to take the bait. NBC can do all the public posturing they want, but their decision was strictly motivated by ratings instead of “the public interest” or any other self-serving phrase that come to mind.

    I am not calling for censorship; NBC had the full right to air those videos and I oppose any efforts by the government to restrict NBC’s right to do so. But I really, really wish NBC and others would understand that what you have the right to do and what’s smart to do are not the same thing. Giving a soapbox to a psycho killer definitely isn’t smart.

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  • I think that they should show the video. We see lots of crimes on t.v. anyway so i don’t see any difference. I understand that 32 people lost there lives but maybe their was a story behind it. The guy was made fun of and people drove him to the point where he had to take drastic measures. I do pray for all the families who lost their love ones, but don’t make it seem that koreans are dangering our country. It doesn’t matter if you are black, white, korean etc. when you make fun of someone really bad they will come back in anger to get revenge!

  • shawnpetriw


    “Giving a soapbox to a psycho killer definitely isn’t smart.”

    Isn’t Jeff’s point that with web 2.0 technologies, no one has control to keep someone from their soapbox? YouTube, Rever, Brightcove, etc., or a standard web account, some html, and iMovie and the crazies (or even you) has a soapbox with global reach.

    Heck, the really sick fcuk could even make money from the grave with Google AdWords, etc. Just like NBC is printing greenbacks with this footage.

  • Just because we look at society and see that there is no control point, doesn’t mean we all have to stoop to that level. I think people in points of responsibility need to hold themselves to a higher standard.

    I honestly get the impression that many people out there wish there was a web cam strapped to a student’s head so they could experience what it’s like to be shot.

  • In essence, Jeff, you’re right. However, so is John Abell. John, however, needs to remember that you are giving an assessment, not an encouragement.

    This is a highly problematic situation. I agree completely that NBC is now crying crocodile tears over not releasing the full videos for general distribution – they want to hang on to their current moneymaker. And, as Jim Harris points out, the hypocrisy of Lauer is, indeed, laughable. Talk about closing the barn door LONG after the horse has fled…

    I agree that the laws of the land need some revision in this area. In cases where a potential mental illness marks the possibility of a person becoming ANY kind of a threat, at the very least the FAMILY should be notified of the possible danger. THAT has GOT to change, and fast…particularly in light of these videos offering possible ‘inspiration’ for other potential loose cannons elsewhere.

    But Jeff is right…the cat IS out of the bag, here, no matter what Mr. Abell thinks. The problem is that if one person doesn’t do it, someone else will. I certainly hope no one is naive enough to think that NBC’s putting a lid on any further loopings of these videos, that someone else with the skill has probably already saved their own copies of the files with plans to post them elsewhere. Bank on it.

    Like anything, both good and bad can come of this. If it’s to get this much airtime, though, perhaps the photos of Cho’s body AFTER taking his own life should get some exposure, as well: it would certainly give any copycat wannabes the necessary full perspective. ‘Fair and Balanced,’ anyone…?

  • Jafar

    A little bit irrelevant to this post, but I cannot help thinking why the media is so obsessed with insisting that the killer was South Korean? I have heard this a hundred times and I do not even watch TV that much. He was an American citizen, wasn’t he? He lived in this country since he was 8, which means his entire character was formed here. To think that the government of Korea officially expressed shame for a horrible crime that an American citizen committed …
    Hell, why is it that the first thing media talks about in situations like this is always the nationality and ethnicity of the criminal?

  • Tansley: I’m actually glad this material is available on the Internet, and in the spirit of full disclosure I helped give NBC Nightly News a 7.4 rating and 15 share (though only theoretically only since ours is not a Neilsen household).

    NBC and everyone else should post it online in full, along with anyone else. My point is that the networks should not be so easily drawn into a competition with Internet publishers regarding use of the airwaves.

    TV is immersive and if I want to watch anything at all I rely on the discretion of TV programmers to exercise good judgment. On the Internet I can avoid the material I abhor. Heck, on TV I can ignore Bill O’Reilly but that’s only because I know exactly when and where he is going to be. :)

    My fear is that the argument, “it is available on the Internet so why shouldn’t we publish it too” will be used justify the use of patently inappropriate material only because not doing so would put TV at a presumed competitive disadvantage to Internet publishers, not because there is news value to some material that the networks would be derelict to censor.

  • Ah, I see, John.

    Very good point. One would hope that television will be able to maintain a high ethical standard and not succumb to the kind of rabid bottom-line mentality that tends to reduce all judgement to the lowest common denominator – and I’m honestly not being sarcastic, here. I don’t know that Peter Jennings would have allowed Cho’s video much airtime at all, but I suppose we’ll never really know the answer to that particular question.

    I do have to wonder at all the airtime that’s been given to the Cho video. You know the dynamic, here, as well as anyone: whatever’s hottest gets the most play. What we’re seeing here is almost reflexive – ‘it’s all over the web, so we’ve GOTTA have it on the air.’ Given where regular programming has been going, it’s been less than surprising to see televised news following suit. And it’s becoming increasingly blurry as to where to draw the line demarcating the appropriate from the inappropriate, thanks in large part to what passes for ‘entertainment’ in our modern culture…

    Your fear is entirely justifiable. Unfortunately, I fear we’re headed there, regardless of any standards. Money has hardly been a guardian of ethics and morals down through the ages… Unless we experience some kind of a socio-cultural renaissance, our increasingly jaded viewing public will fail to draw much of a distinction between something like this and, say, a NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movie. The over-exposure of Americans, in particular, to orchestrated violence has greatly inured them to what was formerly considered horrific. It has also enabled individuals like Cho to do what was once considered to be unthinkable – as if he, like Harris and Klebold, was mentally inside some sort of a first-person-shooter computer game – and so disassociated from human empathy that his victims were little more to him than ciphers…

  • Harry

    “Isn’t Jeff’s point that with web 2.0 technologies, no one has control to keep someone from their soapbox? YouTube, Rever, Brightcove, etc., or a standard web account, some html, and iMovie and the crazies (or even you) has a soapbox with global reach.”

    Please stop being so dense. Jeff’s point is irrelevant, and so is yours. In this case, there was a single control point—-NBC News—-and Cho opted to use it instead of YouTube, Rever, etc. etc. If Cho had opted for something other than “single pint” distribution, you and Jeff would be on point with your arguments. But Cho didn’t, and I can’t understand why you’re having such trouble grasping the obvious.

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  • Jim Harris

    I revisit after reading AP newswoman Vicki Smith’s latest article from Blacksburg, focusing on the Read family of Annandale, Va.
    “We want the world to know and celebrate our children’s lives, and we believe that’s the central element that brings hope in the midst of great tragedy,” Read said Thursday, with his wife, Cathy, at his side. “These kids were the best that their generation has to offer.”
    As the Reads left Blacksburg on Thursday for their home in Annandale, they were exhausted, pale, heartbroken — and furious. On television, the overwhelming image of the tragedy was the face of Cho Seung-Hui — a killer whose name Peter Read cannot bring himself to speak.
    “I want to issue a direct personal plea, to all the major media,” he told The Associated Press. “For the love of God and our children, stop broadcasting those images and those words. Choose to focus on life and the love and the light that our children brought into the world and not on the darkness and the madness and the death.”
    I only caught the last five minutes of tonight’s broadcast, but sensed that Charles Gibson took NBC to the rack. His emotions, I think, mirror Mr. Read’s above. Let’s quit debating whether NBC did wrong; you can’t unring a bell. As media practitioners / watchers, let’s vow to call bullshit on the repetition of NBC’s behavior during the next big, gory story.

  • Jeff – Brilliantly articulated – I couldn’t agree more.

    We are about to experience a cultural tsunami in the way the world is able to communicate with each other – across all cultures, in near real time, at or near no cost, and without the realistic possibility for any third party (whether government or corporate), to play policeman to preventable this revolution from happening – the best they can hope for is to delay it.

    Thanks for your continued insight.


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  • Jeff–

    Actually, what I said was “the father in me doesn’t want my kids finding this on the web…the openness advocate in me agrees that we don’t make horrors go away by hiding them. I’m conflicted about this…”

    And I was reacting to Dave Winer’s blanket insistence that in a decentralized world a news organization like NBC News had an obligation to put it all out there, unfiltered, for us to view.

    Just because it is technologically impossible to close the barn door, as you nicely put it, on user-generated content–even content made by mass murderers–all does that mean in every case we must choose to put it on the web? If the videos had been sent to you or to Dave Winer, presumably you would have published them verbatim. But NBC can also choose not to and the culture will not suffer from it. I suspect the balance they struck, of posting most but not all the videos, is sufficient for whatever we may possibly learn from watching them. I’d like to believe that if a serious researcher needed greater access, they’d be able to get it.

  • Steve Clancy

    In general I was disappointed with NBC’s move to release the images, given that it was only playing into the hands of a psychopath. I thought it was irresponsible on NBC’s part. Then it occurred to me whether it would be different if the FBI had received the tapes and released them to the media. I feel people would be more likely to play it. And of course in this case, the FBI did approve of NBC showing it.

    The only thing that bothers me with releasing the unedited video online is the idea that the Internet is this seedy place where people should dump their garbage. At my student newspaper, we had a big discussion about whether to run pictures of hazing (in this case wrestlers in jockstraps). We thought sticking it on the front page would be too shocking and unnecessary, since the story was really about the investigation. Then there was a discussion about whether we should stick them on our Web site instead. As Web chief, I felt kind of uncomfortable about the idea of the Web being used just for print’s leftovers.

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  • Michael Barger

    Jeff –

    Thanks for your wise and perceptive words. When a tragedy like the Virginia Tech massacre occurs, the public wants to understand thoroughly what has occured and why it has happened. Millions of us scoured the internet for every scrap of information that became available. The demented writings and videos of Cho are essential information in understanding what motivated this horror. A large portion of the public wanted to see them. If they didn’t want to see them they would not have boosted NBC’s ratings and racked up milliions of page hits on the internet.

    A major meme going around is that NBC gave Cho what he wanted and that was bad. Do people who think this way believe that he is roasting in the pits of Hell saying, “Well, at least NBC gave me the publicity I wanted.”? Do they know for certain that the dead know what the living are doing?

    Do people believe in this age in which leaking has become standard operating proceedure in matters of public interest, that the material would not have gotten out even if NBC had decided to lock it all in a vault and throw away the key?

    Some people are objecting that NBC’s showing the videos has encouraged copy-cat psychokillers in the making. If such killers have been encouraged it is due to the fact of Cho’s murderous ramapage itself and not his after the fact videos. It is dubious that the videos are the tipping point.

    The public now has all the information it needs to understand comprehensively what has happened. We can turn to the task of debating the really difficult issues of deciding what degrees of freedom students and staff need to protect themselves,; what surveillance options like in-class cams need to be instituted; and what monitoring of potentially murderous disturbed people are likely to be effective. I, for one, am grateful for NBC releasing what they have. We have seen the worst and now we can move on.

    Thanks again for your intelligent thought on these issues. It is has been your hallmark ever since I started reading you after 9/11. We need more people like you to illumine our way through a vastly altered world of communications.

  • John Henson

    Just as the Columbine killings put a gun into Cho’s hand, isn’t NBC putting a gun into another person’s hand?

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  • Chris Newman

    If a child or a teenager want to find something on the internet, they will search for it until they find it. Since NBC got the video and photos sent to them, they should post it on their site with warnings that the images may be disturbing or there may be some foul language. As journalists, its our duty to inform, and this is a big story, so every angle needs to be covered. Even the bad and disturbing sides as well. With the latest technological advances, covering news will become less controlled, but utlimately better for the readers/viewers.

  • Mark Rutledge

    Media is a damned-if-you-do-or-don’t business. If NBC had sat on those tapes, everyone would have condemned them for judging themselves the world’s moral compass. The best thing that could have happened is if one person had opened that package and quietly taken its contents directly to the incinerator. They didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.

    “But please not one word of the man who had killed me,
    Don’t mention his name and his name will pass on.”

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